EXCLUSIVE: George Stephanopoulos' Full Interview With President Bush

'This Week' Anchor Recently Interviewed the President

Oct. 22, 2006 —

ABC's George Stephanopoulos recently sat down with President Bush for an exclusive interview. Below is the entire transcript of their conversation, which covers everything from North Korea to Iraq to the upcoming elections.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, let's start with North Korea. Are they about to test another nuclear weapon?

BUSH: Don't know. We're dealing with a non-transparent society.

You know, the last test we heard rumors of a test, and then they called the Chinese up, like...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Half hour before.

BUSH: Yeah, minutes before the test.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But there are rumors again that they've told the Chinese they're thinking of two or three more tests.

BUSH: I haven't heard that. On the other hand, our secretary of state, Condi Rice, is out there, and I'm sure they will share that with her.

If they do, all that we'll do is help consolidate a firm group of nations that are tired of North Korea thumbing its nose at the international community.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Last week, after their first test, you went into the White House and you said that any transfer of nuclear material by North Korea would be considered a grave threat to the security of the United States.

I went back and checked. You've used that phrase once before in your presidency, about Iraq. So are you saying then, if North Korea sold nukes to Iran or Al Qaida...

BUSH: They'd be held to account.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What does that mean?

BUSH: Well, time they find out, George. One of the things that's important for these world leaders to hear is, you know, we will use means necessary to hold them to account.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So if you got intelligence that they were about to have that kind of a transfer...

BUSH: Well, if we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer, and we would deal with the ships that were taking the -- or the airplane that was dealing with taking the material to somebody.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, if it happened, you'd retaliate?

BUSH: You know, I'd just say it's a grave consequence.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that's about as serious as it can get.

BUSH: Well, my point is that I want the leader to understand -- the leader of North Korea to understand that he'll be held to account. Just like he's being held to account now for having run a test.

And the account is that there -- he can no longer count on being at the table with just the United States to try to -- you know, to try to blackmail, really is what he was doing. And now he's going to have to deal with five other nations.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I know you want these sanctions to work. But China only seems half-committed to them right now.

BUSH: You know, I think I'm getting a little different picture from Condi. They don't particularly want to board ships. But, on the other hand, if there's good intelligence, they'll work with us on that intelligence. They're inspecting cargoes coming across their border.

You know, I read that story that China was only half committed. That's not, that's not...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But is there any real hope that these sanctions are going to convince North Korea to give up their weapons?

BUSH: Well, that's the fundamental question, George. I can't tell you that. But I know you've got to try it. I mean -- and I know that if more than one nation is admonishing North Korea, it is more likely the leader in North Korea will make a rational decision.

It's an interesting question you ask because the truth of the matter is this decision is his to make. We've made our decision.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Tell us how you made the decision?

BUSH: I don't know. And I -- you know, I just don't know. And I -- my hope is is that he's going to make the decision that says: I will honor the agreement I made last September of 2005 -- get rid of my weapons programs and return for a better way forward for my people.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think China can be convinced to help push him out?

BUSH: George, all I can tell you is China has been convinced to be a part of a Chapter 7 resolution at the United Nations which, in itself, surprised a lot of people.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Which worries you more: nuclear North Korea, nuclear Iran?

BUSH: Both. Both. Obviously, there's a geographical difference between the two. Iran is -- North Korea is fairly well isolated, but North Korea can do a lot of damage to -- if she so choose, to create instability in a very important region of the world.

But so can Iran. And, you know, they're both worrisome. And they were worrisome -- and they've both been worrisome prior to my presidency. We just got (inaudible) deal (inaudible).

STEPHANOPOULOS: In 1960, John Kennedy warned that we might have a world with 20 nuclear powers.

BUSH: Yeah.

STEPHANOPOULOS: He was wrong then. But is that a possibility we have to prepare for now?

BUSH: I certainly hope not. I think it's very important for us to be tough on proliferation.

On the other hand, I have put out a new regime to help deal with issues like global warming and the energy shortages that said: You can have a nuclear power plant, civilian nuclear power plant and, in return, there will be a supplier-nation group to provide enriched uranium for you and then we'll collect the enriched uranium.

So my hope is that there's more countries using nuclear power, but without the capacity to make the materials which then could be converted into weaponry...

STEPHANOPOULOS: You're convinced that more nuclear powers is a more dangerous world?

BUSH: No. I'm convinced that more nuclear power is important for the economies around the world and for the environment. And I believe we can do so in a way that does not make it a more dangerous world. And that is, have those of us which are -- have the capacity to enrich uranium to share it with nations and we would collect the uranium after it had been spent.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's been a brutal month in Iraq.

BUSH: That's right.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yesterday, 11 Americans killed, another American killed today.

On a day like that, what kind of reports do you get from the battlefield?

BUSH: Well, I get that report, that soldiers were killed...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Every casualty.

BUSH: Yeah, absolutely, I read every casualty, and it breaks my heart, because behind every casualty is somebody with tears in their eyes. Behind every casualty are families that will be mourning the loss of life for a lifetime.

I think the hardest part of the presidency is to meet with families who've lost a loved one.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've done it a lot.

BUSH: I have. And I will continue to do it. I owe it to the families.

I am amazed by the strength of the families and the loved ones. These are people that by and large have told me that their loved one chose to be there and believed in the mission.

But I grieve when I see -- when I read about the loss of life.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times this morning that what we might be seeing now is the Iraqi equivalent of the Tet offensive...

BUSH: Yeah.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... in Vietnam in 1968. Tony Snow this morning said he may be right.

BUSH: Mm-hmm.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you agree?

BUSH: He could be right. There's certainly a stepped up level of violence, and we're heading into an election.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So they're trying to influence the elections?

BUSH: Could be. I don't know. I haven't -- I don't have any intelligence that says that. Tom Friedman's a smart guy.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But what's your gut tell you?

BUSH: George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we'd leave. And the leaders of al Qaeda have made that very clear.

Look, here's how I view it.

First of all, al Qaeda is still very active in Iraq. They are dangerous. They are lethal. They are trying to not only kill American troops, but they're trying to foment sectarian violence.

They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and will cause government to withdraw.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your home-state senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said that's exactly what they created -- chaos.

BUSH: Well, I disagree with her. I believe that what you're seeing is a battle for Iraq with a democratic government beginning to grow stronger and stronger. And so I didn't hear her say that. I'll take you word for it.

But there's no question it's tough. But it's tough because an enemy wants to create enough chaos that we leave. I think she also went on to say -- I'd be surprised if she said we need to leave.

STEPHANOPOULOS: She actually said she wanted us to consider partition, which I know you're against.

BUSH: No, I don't believe -- I think that would be a mistake. I think that would create more sectarian violence. I'll tell you why. And let's -- first of all, I'm a big fan of Kay Bailey Hutchison. So if you're trying to get me to debate my senior senator from Texas, I refuse to do so.

On the other hand, I do think it would be a mistake. I think if you partitioned the country, where you've got a Sunni sector, a Kurdish sector, a Shia sector, all that will do is encourage other radical elements to come in and support their Sunni brothers or Shia brothers or their Kurdish brothers -- one.

Two, the Iraqi people don't want a partition. The Iraqi people voted for a constitution which spells out federalism that now needs to be further refined. But, we -- this is a sovereign government. This is a government of the people, which makes it quite unique in the Middle East.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I know you don't think that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war...

BUSH: Right.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... Right now.

BUSH: Right.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But whatever you call it, aren't American men and women now dying to prevent Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other?

BUSH: No. George, I -- it's dangerous. And you're right, no matter what you call it.

The fundamental question is: Are we on our way to achieving a goal, which is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself and be an ally in the war on terror in the heart of the Middle East.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It seems like, every month, we're going farther from that.

BUSH: Well, I don't know why you would say that. I mean...

STEPHANOPOULOS: The casualties are going up.

BUSH: ... if that's the definition of success or failure, the number of casualties, then you're right. But that's what the enemy knows. See, they try to define success or failure.

I define success or failure as to whether or not the Iraqis will be able to defend themselves. I define success or failure as whether the unity government's making difficult -- the difficult decisions necessary to unite the country.

I define success or failure as whether schools are being built, or hospitals are being opened. I define success or failure as whether we're seeing a democracy grow in the heart of the Middle East.

Because a democracy in the Middle East, a society based upon liberty, will be a defeat for the terrorists, who have clearly said they want a safe haven from which to launch attacks against America, a safe haven from which to topple moderate governments in the Middle East, a safe haven from which to spread their jihadist point of view, which is that there are no freedoms in the world; we will dictate to you how you think.

I know some Americans don't think that is a threat. I view it as a threat because -- and the reason it's a threat is I can conceivably see a world in which radicals and extremists control oil. And they would say to the West: You either abandon Israel, for example, or we're going to run the price of oil up. Or withdraw...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Aren't some of the (inaudible) in the Iraqi government right now, Muqtada al-Sadr?

BUSH: The people voted for a government. And this government is going to have to perform to the will of the people. And that stands in stark contrast to the tyrant that preceded them and to the vision of those who would like to change the governments all throughout the Middle East.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is the government format to your standards right now?

BUSH: The government is -- look, I think the guy's been in office for about four months, Maliki. In my judgment, Maliki has got what it takes to lead a unity government.

But what you're seeing is a new form of government actually beginning to evolve after years of tyranny.

I'm patient. I'm not patient forever. And I'm not patient with dawdling. But I recognize the degree of difficulty of the task, and therefore, say to the American people, we won't cut and run.

On the other hand, we'll constantly adjust our strategy to...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Exactly what I wanted to ask you about, because James Baker said that he's looking for something between cut and run...

BUSH: Cut and run and.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... and stay the course.

BUSH: Well, listen, we've never been stay the course, George. We have been -- we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we're constantly adjusting the tactics, constantly.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Here's what I don't get.

BUSH: OK.

STEPHANOPOULOS: James Baker's a smart guy. He's got a solid group of people on that study group. But what can he come up with that you and your military commanders haven't already thought of?

BUSH: Well, why don't we wait and see? I don't -- you know, we're not in collaboration with the Baker-Hamilton committee. I think this is a good idea, to get people outside to come and take a look.

That's an interesting question. I'm looking forward to seeing the answer.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, a lot of people think we shouldn't wait, and that if a change of strategy is needed it shouldn't come after the elections, it should come now.

BUSH: Well, they're constantly changing tactics, constantly changing tactics. The strategy -- remember, the goal is, like I defined, a government that can defend, sustain and govern itself. The strategy is a political strategy, a security strategy, and a rebuilding the country strategy. And the tactics inherent in the three strategies, particularly the security strategy, are constantly being adjusted.

STEPHANOPOULOS: (OFF-MIKE) strategy working now?

BUSH: If it's not working, our commanders change it. And there's progress being made on the political front. There is some progress being made on the security front in terms of getting more Iraqi unit.

Eventually, it's going to be up to Iraq to defend herself. Eventually it's going to be the decision of the Iraqi people as to whether or not they want a form of government based upon liberty. That's going to be their choice.

Our job is to help them achieve that objective. And so there is some progress.

Look, no question it's violent, but remember why it's violent, because some -- much of the violence is caused by people that want us to leave. And the fundamental question the American people have to make is, should we stay? Should we constantly adjust our tactics to achieve the objective, but is it worth it to be in Iraq?

There's some decent people who say: No, we should have never gone in the first place.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you imagine any circumstances...

BUSH: I wasn't quite through yet.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask the question...

BUSH: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are U.S. troops going to leave Iraq before you leave the presidency?

BUSH: No. I cannot -- you mean, any U.S. troops?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Right.

BUSH: Well, U.S. troops have been leaving Iraq since I've been the president.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But complete withdrawal; no way?

BUSH: You mean every single troop out? No.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are these midterm elections a referendum on Iraq?

BUSH: You know, I think they're a referendum, from my perspective, which is kind of like your perspective, which is the Washington perspective, based upon: who best to secure this country from further attack and who best to help this economy continue to grow.

The truth of the matter is, as you well know, most elections are very local elections. Sometimes those issues are salient, but sometimes there's other issues at the local level as well.

I'm not on the ballot. This set of elections is much different from a presidential election year.

I'm going to continue saying: Vote Republican because we have got the best plan to protect you and we'll keep your taxes low to keep this economy growing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You're not on the ballot, but we went back and counted. There are 72 Democratic candidates for the House who are putting you in their campaign.

BUSH: Are they saying good things?

STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think so.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: Look, maybe that strategy will work; maybe it won't work. I've always found that when a person goes in to vote, they're going to want to know what that person's going to do.

What is the plan for a candidate on Iraq? What do they believe?

Frankly, I hear disparate voices all over the place from the Democrats' side about Iraq. We got some saying: Get out. The person I ran against in 2004, Senator Kerry, said at a date certain, time, withdraw.

We got one of the top leaders in the House said: Let's move troops to an island and maybe respond from there.

I would suspect most voters are going to be saying: What is the plan? Or most voters will be saying: How come the majority of Democrats voted against the detainee program where we're going to question high-value detainees to determine whether they've got information necessary to protect the country?

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've used some pretty tough rhetoric, though. You said this election's a choice between Republicans and Democrats who want to wave the white flag of surrender in the war on terror.

Can you name a Democrat who wants to wave the white flag of surrender?

BUSH: I can name a Democrat who said there ought to be a date certain from which to withdraw from Iraq, whether or not we've achieved a victory or not. And I...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that surrender?

BUSH: Yes, it is, if you pull the troops out before the job is done. Absolutely, George.

And if we were to -- and if we were to leave before the job is done, in my judgment, the, you know, al Qaeda would find a safe haven from which to attack.

This is exactly what they said.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don't think that's questioning their patriotism when you say that?

BUSH: No. I know it's not questioning their patriotism. I think it's questioning their judgment.

STEPHANOPOULOS: In the last year, scandal and corruption have also become an issue in this campaign. Four Republican House members have resigned under an ethical cloud.

Does that disappoint you?

BUSH: Of course. Absolutely. Any Republican or Democrat who has betrayed the trust disappoints me, just like it disappoints the voters.

In this election, however, those people aren't going to be on the ballot, and...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think it's going to tamp down Republican turnout?

BUSH: That's to be seen. You know, I don't know. I'm not a pundit.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You worried about it?

BUSH: I don't worry about it. You know, I'm going to do my best to help energize our base by talking about the two issues that I think are the vital issues of the campaign.

The fundamental issue facing this country is can we protect the American people?

That is the fundamental issue.

There's an enemy that still wants to attack us. They are ruthless. They are cold-blooded. They murder. And the government must have every tool necessary to protect the American people. It is the issue in the campaign.

Domestically, I believe the issue is: who best to keep this economy growing. And I believe Democrats will raise taxes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The Dow, almost at 12,000 today.

BUSH: Yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Given the fact that you think the economy is doing so well, and the economy has been growing, how do you explain why, in almost every poll, two-thirds of Americans think we're going in the wrong direction?

BUSH: George, I don't -- all I can imagine is: What happens if the unemployment rate were at 10 percent?

I mean, I can't answer that. Look, I'm not a poll guy. That's you. I don't analyze polls. All I can tell you is that people are working. The unemployment rate is 4.6 percent, added 6.6 million new jobs since August 2003.

This economy is strong. And thankfully, it's strong. Because you know, people talk about all kinds of things being issues. I've always found the economy to be an issue. And if it's good, you do OK, and if it's not good, you don't do OK in American politics.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're going to do OK in the elections?

BUSH: I think we will; yes, I really do. I really do.

Look, I know the conventional wisdom is kind of, you know, this is the year and they're going to change this.

I remember 2004. From -- you look up the dates and I'll probably be wrong, but like winter and spring, I was history as far as the punditry was concerned.

2002, coming out of the first year of the president. You know, you generally lose a seat. And we did just fine.

And so I've heard all the speculation and all the predictions. And I believe if our candidates stick with security and tell the American people we've got the plan to protect this country against these terrorists who want to hit us and talk about the economy, we'll do just fine.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your father gave a speech in Pennsylvania, I think it was last week, where he said he hates to think what life it going to like for you if the Democrats take over the country.

BUSH: He shouldn't be speculating like this, because -- he should have called me ahead of time and I'd tell him they're not going to.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Haven't you thought about it, though?

BUSH: Not really, George. If I have to, I'll think about it later on. But I'm a person that believes we'll continue to control the House and the Senate.

I can't tell you what the margins are going to be. But I believe our candidates will go out and talk about the issues that matter and we'll win.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you do think you're going to control, but even in a best case, and Ken Mehlman, your chairman, said that even if you have a great day on Election Day, you're going to lose seats in the Senate, lose seats in the House. Doesn't that mean you're going to have to change the way you do business with the Congress in the last two years?

BUSH: Every session you change the way you do business with the Congress. And you test the mood of the Congress, find out what their appetite will be. But it doesn't change your priorities.

And my priorities are reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, like I mentioned to you. My priorities are giving the tools necessary -- to our professionals -- necessary to protect this homeland. My priorities would be to support these troops. My priorities would be to reform the entitlement programs. And my priorities are going to be to get a comprehensive immigration bill.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're going to try to bring back Social Security reform?

BUSH: Yes. Yes, I am. I campaigned on it in 2000 and 2004.

And, you know, people talk a lot about the deficit, and the truth of the matter is the deficit that concerns most people who follow, you know, -- who follow deficits is, "Are the unfunded liabilities inherent in the entitlement programs?," which are being strained by the fact that baby boomers are retiring and we've been given greater promises than the next generation can afford to pay.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Those last two, Social Security reform and immigration, those were your big domestic priorities for this last Congress.

BUSH: Yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Killed by a Republican Congress.

BUSH: They're still alive. I mean, the truth of the matter is the immigration reform is going to be a combination of security measures -- border security measures coupled with, you know, a temporary worker plan. And there's now in place a building block from which to get comprehensive reform.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think it might actually be easier to get that through with more Democrats?

BUSH: Well, George, that's a tricky question. But, you know, I've been around long enough to tell you that -- to remind you that I just told you earlier that I believe -- strongly believe -- that we will have a Republican speaker and a Republican leader.

(CROSSTALK)

BUSH: I beg your pardon.

You know, I think this is an issue that -- one, it's a serious issue. Secondly, most Americans understand we need a comprehensive plan, that border security is part of the plan. But also, having a rational way for people who are doing jobs Americans are not doing to come and do them on a temporary basis also is part of border security.

And you know, I do believe we'll get something done. I really do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You said in your press conference last week -- you joked about all the books being written...

BUSH: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... about your administration. Have you read any of them?

BUSH: No.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?

BUSH: You know, I don't know. I haven't read the bad ones and I haven't read the good ones. I guess it's kind of weird to be reading books about yourself when you're still trying to be the president. I really haven't.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you explain, though, how Bob Woodward, who...

BUSH: I didn't read the book.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I know, but he's written three books about your presidency...

BUSH: Well I didn't read any of them.

STEPHANOPOULOS: None of them, even when they were lauding you...

BUSH: George, I didn't read it. I have not read one book about me. I've read a lot of books this year, but not one about myself.

You know, I just, I feel uncomfortable reading about myself. It's hard for you to relate, I think.

But I'm still in the midst of my presidency and people are writing books about my presidency. It is so myopic in many ways.

The true history of my presidency will not be reflected until way after I'm gone.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't think there's anything to be learned from these books in real time?

BUSH: No.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What was the last book you read?

BUSH: I'm reading History of the English-Speaking Peoples from 1990 on -- 1900 on. It's a great book.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What are you taking from it?

BUSH: I'm taking that -- I'm taking that sometimes history gets distorted.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have to take the long view.

BUSH: Yes, you do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Based on everything you've learned as president, which personal quality is going to be most important for the next president?

BUSH: That's a very good question. Can I name two?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Sure.

BUSH: Determination and compassion.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what's the one (inaudible) piece of advice you have for that person, whoever it is?

BUSH: Stand on principle.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thanks very much.

BUSH: Good. I appreciate those last questions.